ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Senator Obama's lead among Latinos isn't a big surprise. Then again, President Bush made big inroads four years ago, winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. But the pendulum does seem to be swinging back toward Democrats now.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden catches up with one Virginia man whose political evolution reflects his community's.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Ernesto Alas is obsessed with politics. He voted for President Bush twice, and he loved the president's support for legalizing millions of immigrant workers. When hundreds of thousands of Hispanics marched in the streets two years ago, Alas was there with his wife and four children, proudly the flag of El Salvador, the country he left 25 years ago.
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LUDDEN: But by September 2006, when I met Alas on the National Mall in Washington, he was frustrated. The rallies were fizzling. Congress was blocking President Bush's immigration efforts. Mid-term elections loomed.
Mr. ERNESTO ALAS (Hispanic Voter, Washington): This time, it's going to change my vote. It's going to change it.
LUDDEN: The fallout from the increasingly polarized immigration debate changed a lot of Hispanic votes. Many were pushed by a slew of Republican campaign ads that fall targeting illegal immigrants. This one in Rhode Island linked the use of Mexican consular ID cards to terrorism.
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Unidentified Man #2: …obtained, can be used to gain access to other documentation, to get a driver's license, enter government buildings, board airplanes. (Unintelligible) accepts Mexican ID cards that can threaten our security.
LUDDEN: Two years later, a backlash is shaping up.
Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (Founder, New Democrat Network): There is a new, incredible energy in the Latino community.
LUDDEN: Simon Rosenberg heads NDN, a Democratic think-tank. He says so many Hispanics have become citizens and registered to vote in the past two years, he estimates they could make up 10 percent of the electorate this November.
Mr. ROSENBERG: In the primaries, you saw huge, tripling numbers of Latino voters, and really extraordinary, and that's because this community feels that they've got to get in the game. They've got to push back against what they perceive to be the incredible racism that has exploded against them in the last few years.
LUDDEN: This year, 78 percent of Hispanic primary voters voted Democratic, which brings us back to Ernesto Alas.
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LUDDEN: We meet this time in a park on Capitol Hill, where Alas is a chef in one of the congressional office buildings, a place he says he can indulge his zest for politics. Alas no longer considers himself Republican. He admits he was disappointed last year when the Democratic-controlled Congress also failed to pass an immigration overhaul, but Alas has been an early and ardent supporter of Barack Obama. He thinks the candidate can relate to the concerns of low-wage immigrant workers.
Mr. ALAS: He say he remember when his mother got her food stamps. That mean he knows exactly how the poor people, the class American…
Mr. ALAS: Lower class, middle class, how he can work, and so he know, even before, when he was a child.
LUDDEN: Tied closely to Alas' economic worries is his deep concern over the war in Iraq. For him, Obama's biggest appeal may be his intention to bring U.S. troops home.
Mr. ALAS: Every single day, a lot of American people die over there, you know. Every month, how many millions, billions do we spend over there? (Unintelligible), we can spend in our country, we can spend on more things over here, but I think the war is over long time ago.
LUDDEN: Alas says he has a lot of respect for John McCain, especially his efforts to legalize immigrants, but he thinks he'll continue too many of President Bush's policies, including in Iraq.
Danny Vargas of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly says McCain has a reservoir of goodwill with the Hispanic community, and he takes comfort in the knowledge that Hispanics often tend to vote for the candidate over the party.
Mr. DANNY VARGAS (Chairman, Republican National Hispanic Assembly): I think McCain has always demonstrated a willingness to be a leader on issues that are tough. So I think Hispanics see that as someone who's courageous and willing to do what's right.
LUDDEN: Vargas agrees the Hispanic vote this fall could be pivotal, and in Northern Virginia, Ernesto Alas will be doing his part to make sure of it.
In 2004, he was an election officer and says he was crushed when only a couple dozen eligible voters in his precinct showed up. This time, Alas believes turnout will be far higher, but he's prepared to round up voters and drive them to the polls himself just in case.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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